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February 14, 2003

Bill takes from the deaf to give to the deaf

From: Great Falls Tribune, MT - 14 Feb 2003

Tribune Capitol Bureau
HELENA -- A bill heard Thursday sparked an unlikely and undesired funding argument between supporters of two programs serving the deaf.

Part of HB266, heard by the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee, would eliminate taking $57,000 a year from the surplus budget of the Montana Telecommunications Access Program that helps deaf people communicate by phone.

That money is then used to supplement the budget of the Great Falls-based Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind.

Last summer's special legislative session approved the transfer for the first time.

The governor's office recommended continuing that transfer for the next two years. One joint appropriations subcommittee already has approved the idea. And a key legislator said the chance of finding replacement general fund money for MSDB in this financially strapped session is "almost nil."

MSDB Superintendent Steve Gettel said he felt "rotten" to testify against deaf retired teachers he's worked with for years in seeking continued funding for the school. Gettel also said he realizes the MTAP system benefits MSDB students as well. But he said MSDB made as many cuts in supplies and books as it could to handle last's year's budget cuts and would have to start laying off staff members if it loses another $114,000 over the next two years.

But the problem, said MTAP executive director Kryss Kuntz, is that the program needs the money itself. It is starting to put aside a lot of money to pay for even better communications devices for the hearing impaired that the Federal Communications Commission is expected to require all states to provide within a few years. One program would enable deaf people to communicate with hearing or other deaf people by signing through a camera and computer to a relay video operator who could read and interpret the sign language.

Another joint appropriations subcommittee has approved MTAP's spending plans.

Betty Van Tighem, a deaf, retired MSDB teacher, testified by sign language that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone while trying to help his wife recover her hearing loss. But it would be more than 100 years before a program that uses typewriter devices and a relay phone operator to truly let hearing impaired folks communicate independently by phone, she said.

There were no such devices when she was growing up or during most of her working life, Van Tighem said, so she had to rely on family, friends and neighbors to help communicate over the phone.

"My life was an open book; I had no secrets then," she said. "But, since MTAP came into business, I am living with independent access to the telephone, just like you."

The MTAP service is paid for by a 10-cents a month assessment on every state telephone line. Equipment is provided without charge to hearing-impaired folks with family income under 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Another part of HB266 would eliminate a cost-sharing program that had been required for people earning somewhat more money.

After hearing the testimony, the bill sponsor, Rep. Hal Jacobson, D-Helena, said it would be difficult to decide between "two worthy, worthy" programs that serve the deaf unless the Legislature can find additional funding. He volunteered to work with two other legislators to seek a solution.

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